“There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth, “—Robert Evans.
But in the 2019 Netflix miniseries, When They See Us, we learn about a case where there were several sides to a story that led to the wrongful conviction of five teenage boys of color.
At the advocacy, creation, writing, and direction of Ava DuVernay, the 30-year-old story is retold portraying the events before, during, and after the high-profile case of “The Central Park Jogger,” Trisha Meili, who was raped and left to die on April 19, 1989, but from another angle.
The four-episode limited series focuses on telling the story of the five young men whose life was stunted by the jail sentence given to them for a murder they didn’t commit. Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Antron McCray are the exonerated five and didn’t hold back when sharing their heartbreaking story with DuVernay.
Part One describes the charges and interrogation. In this first episode, you can see how Linda Fairstein, the prosecutor assigned to the case, went above and beyond to destroy the lives of these teenagers.
Part Two describes their legal battle. This episode shows how everyone involved prepared for the trials –families, boys and defense attorneys alike.
Part Three describes the experiences behind bars for four of the teens. In this episode they show you the difficult and the real struggle of a life behind bars.
Part Four describes the years Korey Wise spent sentenced as an adult and the events that led to the boys’ exoneration.
When they see us, shines a light on the way our justice system failed to properly investigate the crime leading to the teens’ initial charge. How the minors were questioned without parental supervision, leading to coerced confessions, and how evidence was pursued and presented to fit the case. From unmatched DNA samples to evidence found at the crime scene, that none of the boys had to do with, the show does a great job depicting the high racial tensions surrounding the case.
The ruling wasn’t overturned until the real attacker, Matias Reyes, came forward in 2002 and tests concluded a positive DNA match. A settlement took place in 2014, 25 years after the arrest.
While all five served their time, they lost years of their childhood and were returned to society still branded with the reputation given to them, facing trouble adjusting to their family lives and looking for employment.
Since their exoneration, three of them have moved out of New York City. Wise and Richardson stayed, and have been active voices for the Innocence Project who advocated for the exoneration. McCray moved to Georgia where he lives with his family and is a forklift operator. Santana moved to Atlanta where he runs a clothing line, Park Madison NYC, and lives with his daughter. Salaam is a motivational speaker and advocate of justice.
The conversation this series has sparked tells us that even after the new evidence and exoneration, there are still people on both sides of the debate. It tells us that our justice system was flawed then and is flawed now. DuVernay’s project is more than a narrative about a wrongful conviction case; it raises the voice on racial bias and injustice and advocates for the millions of people of color these men represent.
This story is a reminder of the attention we need to give toward improving our justice system and our culture through our political leaders, our law-making, and our law enforcement. It also reminds us we have a long way to go, but just the mere fact that the conversion was started gives us faith for change.
Invest some time to watch it (if you can) as it will not only entertain you but teach you a thing or two.